If you ask Dr. David James, computer science is kind of like tofu. It takes on the flavor of what you bring to it. Since graduating with his master’s and doctorate from Syracuse University, James has been bringing the flavor to computer science through his Atlanta-based company, Rhythm in Bytes.
“My passion is to show people who love Black music that computer science is a tool for creativity and imagination,” says James, who earned his master’s in 2010 and PhD in 2017. “Music is data. So why not let music be our data and use that as a vessel to teach all the concepts that we normally teach in computer science coursework?”
Through his company, James hosts workshops to help people develop skills that are taught in introductory Python programming courses at the college level. They can also be customized for children as young as 9 years old.
Using Remix Afro Beats and Hip Hop songs, James is able to teach students how to program by playing and looping songs and mixing them together. Students can also trigger and manipulate sounds using code and scratch remixes to create professional-grade audio effects. James celebrates the community in his workshops by helping students make live art installations using street art and music from local artists.
The Computer Science Bug
James got the computer science bug in high school and enjoyed experimenting and working on his family’s computer. When the National Society of Black Engineers came to his high school promoting college scholarships, he applied and was selected for an engineering scholarship after passing a test. James chose Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, for his undergraduate degree because of its computer engineering courses.
“I had to take a lot of computer science coursework, and to be quite honest with you, it was really tough,” says James. “There was this narrative that you have to be a certain kind of person to graduate with a computer engineering degree. Even when it got really tough, I thought, ‘No, I’m not quitting.’”
With support from his family, James continued pursuing his passion for computer science. He found a new passion when his college hosted a Family Technology Day and allowed students to teach people in the community about computer science. James remembers the day well. He showed people how to strip down computers, build them back together and how to code a web page.
“When I did that, the light bulb went off,” says James. “I thought, I really need to do this as a profession, because I just loved seeing the reactions that people would get when they learn something new or when I was able to help them create something.”
After earning his undergraduate degree, James accepted a job as a technology analyst at Lehman Brothers in 2006, two years before the company filed for bankruptcy. At Lehman Brothers, James helped develop a Java-based web scraping program and provided production support for the Global Prime Brokerage Trading System. He was making more money than he ever imagined, but he still wasn’t fulfilled.
“I was never able to shake that bug of excitement that I would get from teaching,” says James. “So I ended up going to grad school at Syracuse, and that kind of started that path.”
‘I Need to Step out on Faith’
While sitting in a computer music composition class at Syracuse, James noticed one of the musicians using computer programming to create music.
“I thought, ‘I have a music background and I have a computer science background. I need to do this,’” says James. “So that was a spark for me to use music as a vessel to teach computer science.”
Rhythm in Bytes was born in 2017 after a dance company asked James if he could help with a special project that combined his love of music and computer science. Could he use the dancers’ movements to control the music? He could.
“That was my first paid gig that brought me into this being an actual business,” says James. “I programmed cell phones to take GPS data and then transform that and make the music sound different, whether it’s louder or softer or bring the pitch up and down. So it transforms the music as the dancers are moving.”
That work led James to think of more innovative ways he could use his skills. Could he use his programming talent to build simple functions for a DJ controller, such as looping and mixing songs together, and teach others how to do it? He could.
“It’s something that I would think about when I would wake up in the morning,” says James. “I would continue to think about it even when I wasn’t really working. And I thought, ‘No, I need to fix that. I need to step out on faith.’”
James has been running Rhythm in Bytes full time since June and wants to show his students that you don’t have to look a certain way to love computer programming.
“My goal is to have folks that look like me feel like they belong in computer science,” says James. “There are folks that will support you in doing this work. You are not alone.”